(2015) Debbie Johnson, Del Rey, £7.99, pbk, 330pp, ISBN 978-0-091-95361-4
Myth and legend often require reinvention to remain current in urban fantasy. With the proliferation of writers populating the genre, the individual spin of each informs their writing voice. Certainly, Dark Touch by Debbie Johnson sets out its stall in this right from the start. The sequel to Dark Visions maintains the trashy surface tone of its first person narrator, Lily Mccain. Hitching this to a recap of the previous bookís events, so as to welcome new readers to this Ďepisodeí make the writing an acquired niche flavour at first, but when you note the tone is hiding a highly researched depth to Johnsonís interpretation of mythology, it becomes more interesting.
However, this depth does not hide the way in which Johnson, through her principal character, is initially treating the two historical periods she makes use of in her fiction. Her characters Lily and Carmel are articulate about their contemporary culture, but childish about the ancient Irish legends that form the basis of the novel. The problem with the former is that, coupled with attempted mishmashing of vapid trend-speak it dates the work instantly and again, narrows its appeal. As a middle aged male critic Iím not part of the crowd she is speaking to, but other authors donít create such hard boxes around their characters. Books like Jo Waltonís Among Others manage to weave the vibrant character voice of Morwenna in and out of contemporary references to the seventies and eighties, making them part of the charm and appeal. When you get them you feel included, but you donít feel excluded when you donít. Johnsonís Lily has nothing like the same depth and the references are very much about establishing the patois of acceptance into a small clique. She comes across as the kind of girl whoíd point and laugh at your oddities, despite exhibiting a string of her own.
The core supporting cast are introduced in this opening recap. This odd collection of individuals then proceed to squabble over their next move in a high powered version of school yard before embarking on a boat trip to New York. Many of these characters are hardly used in the later chapters of the book and become a silent entourage.
Throughout these opening chapters, Lilyís relationship with her new husband, Gabriel is fitfully explored. As Goddess to his High King, Lily is able to assert her power at times, but his experience and her wilfulness undermine this, making their altercations a constant struggle of calculation and competition. This combined with flick switch state of sexual arousal Lily appears to suffer from makes the interactions a continual state of flux. It is difficult to understand much of this mutual attraction. The continual challenge and impulsion of Lilyís actions and conversation make her unlikeable, while Gabrielís legacy of manipulation and scheming make him untrustworthy as well. With Lily, there is a clear attempt to portray the awkwardness of a teenager struggling to cope with the different layers of self-change and the way in which the world treats her. This is a counter to the smoother development of the child heroes we know, granted they all have their fragile and unstable moments, but with Lily there is much more instability and this fuels an innate hostility. With Luca the vampire added to complete the triangle we have three characters whose flaws act as barriers to us connecting with them. Many lines of dialogue rebound on the page, characters pronouncing one thing as being bad, boring or wrong and then doing just that a few lines later.
As the book progresses its contradictions become more and more evident. In many ways, the writing undermines itself. The interconnection and repackaging of different mythologies to create a wider world of supernatural politics is interesting, but has been done better by Neil Gaiman and Pohl Anderson or worse by Rick Riordan. Johnson doesnít really demonstrate how myth can provide a grand shadow over the story a writer wants to tell. When she does, get close to this, particularly with Lord Donn in the final pages, she undermines the gathering mood with cheap contemporary references. Her cast of legendary characters are reduced to being merely exotic, alternating from wild and tame, monstrous and human. Ultimately to the writer, they are tame, as they are dropped into the requisite plot holes and functions ('I defeated Balor, and saved the world. Yay for me.' etc). Few remain mysterious and all defer to Lily who shows few qualities that would earn this respect.
Debbie Johnson can write and write well, but there are flaws here that thwart her intentions. A better plot, more accessible characters and sticking to the familiarity of her Liverpool setting would showcase her as a real writing force.
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